Back on the Rails

Rep. Peter DeFazio negotiated for funds to return Amtrak routes to pre-pandemic schedules and is now fighting for a larger transportation bill

A train engine hums in the background, behind Eugene’s Amtrak station, as Rep. Peter DeFazio and Amtrak President Stephen Gardner announce at a May 24 press conference that the company’s long distance routes in Oregon have returned to pre-pandemic schedules. 

DeFazio championed the increased federal funding that allowed Amtrak to fully restore the routes and is now advocating for a large-scale transportation bill to fight climate change with transit and electric vehicles. The bill is in the works, but has not yet been introduced in Congress.

Last year, “the pandemic hit Amtrak hard,” Gardner said. Following 2019, a year with “record ridership, record revenues,” the company lost 97 percent of its business in one month, dropping from about 90,000 riders a day to 3,200. The company furloughed more than 1,200 employees in order to keep up with maintenance costs when ticket sales abruptly dropped, Gardner said. 

This spring, DeFazio, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, negotiated $1.7 billion for Amtrak in the American Rescue Plan, the third round of legislation helping Americans respond to COVID-19. 

The funding allowed Amtrak to fully restore route schedules for the Coast Starlight and the Empire Builder, two long-distance routes that connect Portland and Eugene with locations along the West Coast like Seattle, Sacramento and Spokane. Amtrak also used the funds to recall about 1,200 employees around the country, including 29 in Oregon. 

“Because of incredible focus and support from the chairman and his colleagues in the Senate and in the House, Amtrak received the money we needed from the federal government to preserve our network,” Gardner said. 

“Overall,” he tells Eugene Weekly later, “we’ve had people really excited to come back.”

DeFazio said at the press conference that Amtrak plays an important role in lowering carbon emissions and in “economic transformation, not just in terms of tourism but in terms of people who have to commute to work in urban centers” due to high housing costs. 

He also spoke about a new transportation bill he hopes to move through the House once he returns to Washington. 

The bill addresses the climate crisis by creating the sort of transportation reform we need in the 21st century, DeFazio said. Sixty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the system of interstate highways we have today with the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act to move troops and equipment around the U.S. and evacuate cities in case of nuclear war.

“That was an existential threat. Now we have a new existential threat, which is climate change,” DeFazio tells EW. “Transportation is the single largest emitter of carbon pollution of anything in the country.”

The bill focuses on climate by expanding transit options, such as high-speed rail, incentivizing electric vehicles, encouraging the use of materials with lower carbon footprints and requiring states to track and reduce carbon emissions. 

Federal law requires Amtrak passenger trains to receive preference over freight trains, but “they have no way to enforce it except for the Justice Department, which doesn’t want to file litigation,” DeFazio says. “So I’m going to give them new tools for their preference over freight.” 

While DeFazio wants to expand the use of trains, he says that highways are still needed to bring food and other necessities to the U.S. population.

“There isn’t enough capacity even with the railroad companies spending $25 billion a year to enhance capacity, so we’re looking at electrification of the national highway network,” he tells EW. 

The bill aims to increase electric transportation by building a national network of high-speed chargers, preventing the range anxiety that people with electric vehicles experience when they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to reach a charging station. 

DeFazio says he’s fairly confident the bill will pass in the House, but he anticipates steep opposition from Republican senators and freight train companies that don’t want to share the rails with passenger trains. 

Gardner says that Amtrak aligns with DeFazio’s climate goals by reducing carbon emissions. 

Nationwide, vehicle miles traveled are higher than they were pre-pandemic in many markets, according to Gardner. “More people are driving than ever before,” he says. “They may be doing it at different times so peak congestion might be different, but we think it’s going to be really important for Amtrak to provide that alternative to driving and traffic and congestion as people start resuming their routines.”

The majority of this travel is leisure travel; business travel is still down due to COVID-19. 

“A lot of people are anxious to get out, see friends, see family and experience the wonders of nature,” Gardner says. 

While Amtrak ridership is up in recent weeks, it’s still only about 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels on long-distance routes. May 24 marked the first of three waves in which Amtrak will return its long-distance routes to pre-pandemic schedules. In the first week of June, 12 of Amtrak’s long-distance routes around the country will be back to pre-pandemic frequencies.

Gardner says that Amtrak expects to be at about 95 percent of pre-COVID-19 operations at the end of next year and to return to normal ridership levels in 2023 or 2024. He says he’s glad that federal funding has allowed Amtrak to respond to returning demand. 

“There’s a lot of pent up demand for just getting out, participating in the world again,” he says.